Important Facts Everyone Should Know About The Black Panthers
The Black Panther Party was founded 50 years ago ― and still, many misconceptions about its revolutionary work run rampant.
“The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary by Stanley Nelson which aired on PBS, shined a necessary light on the contributions, convictions and struggles of members in the party. Nelson’s informative film took a deep dive into discussing the truth behind the Black Panthers and underscored the heavy institutional backlash the liberation movement received from police and the government.
From the group’s radical inception in 1966 to it’s dissolve in 1982, here are a few important things you must know to better understand the Black Panthers.
1. The Black Panthers’ central guiding principle was an “undying love for the people.”
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, otherwise known as the Black Panther Party (BPP), was established in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The two leading revolutionary men created the national organization as a way to collectively combat white oppression. After constantly seeing black people suffer from the torturous practices of police officers around the nation, Newton and Seale helped to form the pioneering black liberation group to help build community and confront corrupt systems of power.
2. The Black Panthers outlined their goals in a 10 point program.
The Black Panthers established a unified platform and their goals for the party were outlined in a 10 point plan that included demands for freedom, land, housing, employment and education, among other important objectives.
3. Black Panthers monitored the behavior of the police in black communities.
In 1966, police violence ran rampant in Los Angeles and the need to protect black men and women from state-sanctioned violence was crucial. Armed Black panther members would show up during police arrests of black men and women, stand at a legal distance and surveil their interactions. It was “to make sure there was no brutality,” Newton said in archival footage, as shown in the documentary. Both Black Panther members and officers would stand facing one another armed with guns, an act that agreed with the open carry law in California at the time. These confrontations, in many ways allowed the Panthers to protect their communities and police the police.
4. The party grew tremendously and drew attention in cities everywhere.
The party’s goal in increasing membership wasn’t aimed at recruiting church goers, as explained in the documentary, but to recruit the everyday black person who faced police brutality. When black people across the nation saw the Panther’s efforts in the media, especially after they stormed the state capitol with guns in Sacramento in 1967, more men and women became interested in joining. The group also took on issues like housing, welfare and health, which made it relatable to black people everywhere. The party grew rapidly — and didn’t instill a screening process because a priority, at the time, was to recruit as many people as possible.
5. “Free Huey” became an infectious rallying cry following Huey Newton’s arrest in 1967.
In 1967, Newton was charged in the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old police officer, John Frey, during a traffic stop. After the shooting, Newton was hospitalized with critical injuries while handcuffed to a gurney in a room that was heavily guarded by cops. As a result of his hospitalization and arrest, Eldrige Cleaver took leadership of the Panthers and demanded that “Huey must be set free.” The phrase was eventually shortened to “Free Huey,” two words which galvanized a movement demanding for Huey’s release.
6. The Black Panthers affirmed black beauty, which helped to attract more members.
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The sight of black men and women unapologetically sporting their afros, berets and leather jackets had a special appeal to many black Americans at the time. It reflected a new portrayal of self for black people in the 1960s in a way that attracted many young black kids to want to join the party — some even wrote letters to Newton asking to join. “The panthers didn’t invent the idea that black is beautiful,” former member Jamal Joseph said in Stanley’s documentary. “One of the things that Panthers did was [prove] that urban black is beautiful.”
7. The Black Panthers understood the media and effectively used it to their advantage.
The Black Panthers furthered their agenda by appealing to what they believed journalists and photographers sought after to cover in the news. “They were able to establish their legitimacy as a voice of protest,” journalist Jim Dunbar said in the documentary. They leveraged their voices and imprinted their images in newspapers, magazines and television programs.
8. The Black Panthers Party launched the Free Breakfast For Children program.
The party saw a serious need to nurture black kids in disenfranchised communities, so they spent about two hours each morning cooking breakfast for children in poor neighborhoods before school. “Studies came out saying that children who didn’t have a good breakfast in the morning were less attentive in school and less inclined to do well and suffered from fatigue,” former party member David Lemieux said in the documentary. “We just simply took that information and a program was developed to serve breakfast to children,” he added. “We were showing love for our people.” The party served about 20,000 meals a week and it became the party’s most successful program of their 35 survival programs.
9. The party had enemies in high places, including former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who launched COINTELPRO.
Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared the rise of the Black Panther Party so he created COINTELPRO, a secret operation, to discredit black nationalists groups. The Counterintelligence Program’s purpose was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize” black nationalists’ activities. “We were followed everyday, we were harassed, our phones were tapped, our families were harassed,” former Black Panther member Ericka Huggins, whose parents were visited by the FBI, said in the film. Hoover regularly sent police officers letters encouraging them to come up with new ways to cripple the Black Panther Party. Though COINTELPRO didn’t make the party their only targets, 245 out of 290 of their actions were directed at the Black Panthers.
10. Hoover feared the “rising of a Black messiah.”
Hoover feared any growth of the movement and especially feared young white allies who united with black activists to support the movement. Through COINTELPRO, Hoover found ways to track, stalk and dig up information on the party, including planting FBI Informants throughout the party. One of whom happened to be William O’Neal, who was the bodyguard for prominent Black Panther member Fred Hampton.
11. Party members moved in together into “Panther Pads.”
In response to COINTELPRO, members created community hubs called “Panther Pads.” Some members stopped going home to protect their families, so they stayed with each other instead. The “Panther Pads” had to have round-the-clock security and a list of rotating responsibilities and, in turn, it helped to create a stronger sense of community.
12. Black women spoke out, gained more recognition and helped to power the movement.
The Black Panthers are often associated with its male members, but women also played a pivotal role in the party. By the early 1970s, most of the Panthers were women. Women such as Kathleen Cleaver (photographed here), Assata Shakur, Elaine Browne and Angela Davis — who wasn’t an official member — took on leadership roles and had a huge influence on the direction of the party. “The Black Panther Party certainly had a chauvinist tone so we tried to change some of the clear gender roles so that women had guns and men cooked breakfast for children,” Brown said in the documentary. “Did we overcome it? Of course we didn’t. As I like to say we didn’t get these brothers from revolutionary heaven.”
13. The Black Panthers helped to sustain the party by selling a party newspaper, which boasted impressive artwork.
The Panthers distributed a newspaper throughout different cities that became vital to the party’s survival. They sold the paper for 25 cents, half of which went to printing and the other half to different branches of the group. The paper, which outlined their 10 point plan, reached people that the Panthers didn’t have physical access to. The paper also portrayed moving artwork which depicted the resilience of black lives.
14. MLK’s assassination left a devastating impact on the party.
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Civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr., who consistently advocated for non-violence and inspired many, was assassinated in 1968. His murder triggered an overwhelming response from the Panthers. “They had killed their last chance for me to be peaceful with them,” one former member said in the documentary. “They had killed their last chance for negotiation.”
15. Seventeen-year-old Bobby Hutton’s killing by police impacted many.
Eldridge Cleaver’s response to King’s death was to have members attack the police. The younger members with the youngest being 17-year-old Bobby Hutton, were armed and ready, despite the older members disagreeing with the idea. After being cornered by the police in a basement, Cleaver instructed the group to surrender by taking off all of their clothes so the police could see they were unarmed. However, Hutton was embarrassed so he only took off his shirt. Hutton exited the house with his hands in the air and was immediately gunned down by cops. He was one of the first members of the party to be killed by the police.
16. Eldridge Cleaver moved to Algeria and focused on expanding the party outreach abroad.
Cleaver was expected to turn himself in shortly after Hutton’s death but he fled the country. He moved to Algeria and opened an international chapter. As a result of the chapter, the Panther’s were able to forge relationships with North Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese and several African liberation movements. These countries shared a similar anti-American sentiment with the Panthers.
17. David Hilliard temporarily took over command of the party.
With both Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in prison and Eldrige Cleaver in Algeria, the party was left without a leader. So on September 28, 1968, David Hillard, a prominent party member at the time, became the party’s Chief of Staff in the interim before heading to trial a year later in connection to charges from Hutton’s police killing.
18. The FBI doubled down as a direct threat against the Black Panthers, who they perceived to be a terrorist organization.
After President Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, Black Panther party members said his administration gave Hoover even more of a sense to “oppress without restriction.” Shortly after, Hoover publicly identified the Black Panther Party as the no. 1 threat against the United States. His statement, which he made during America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, ignited immediate fury. Following his damning public statement of the party, the FBI took a more proactive approach to what they considered to be a terrorist organization. In the film, Black Panthers said that the FBI manipulated police, who raided homes and sparked shootouts that led to the arrests of countless black men and women.
19. “The Panther 21” set a new precedent among party members.
On April 2, 1969, 21 leading Black Panther members in New York were arrested and accused of charges related to terrorist activity. The men faced up to 360 years in prison and extortionate bail amounts. Community members worked together to raise money for legal fees, old footage in the documentary even shows actress Jane Fonda hosting a fundraiser in her home. After a 13 month trial and a 3-hour-long jury deliberation, the men were eventually acquitted.
20. The momentum of the party became quieted as fear among the community expanded, for well as they knew, that leaders and followers lives were subject to dangers.
While the acquittal of “The Panther 21” was certainly celebrated, commitment to the party’s mission grew weak as did levels of engagement. Other arrests and trials of Black Panthers angered many party members and consumed a lot of their energy, which, in turn, discouraged potential members. “Nobody wanted to go near a party that was so hot,” one former Black Panther said in the film.
21. Bobby Seale’s trial helped give way for Fred Hampton to lead.
Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was arrested in Chicago in September 1969 on charges for conspiracy to riot, and was later also tried on murder charges of a Panther member who was suspected to be an FBI informant. During his trial, Seale demanded to represent himself and insisted on declaring his rights in court. In response, the judge ordered for a gag to be tied around his mouth and that he chained to his chair. During his days in court, protests erupted demanding the court to “Stop The Trial.” It was during this time when Fred Hampton grew prominence for his well-admired leadership and empowering public speeches during protests. “You can jail a revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution,” he once famously said. Hampton was a voice of racial unity and he helped to build a broader Black Panther base in Chicago. He even expanded his coalition to include both hispanic and white activists who shared the same or a similar mission.
22. Police raided the home of Fred Hampton, killing him and another party member.
On December 5, 1969, police raided the home of Fred Hampton and fired somewhere between 82 to 99 gun shots, which left both Hampton and Mark Clark, a party leader from Peoria, dead. Police claim their decision to open fire was justified but Black Panther Party members, as some expressed in the film, adamantly believe Hampton was a target and that the shooting was set up by the FBI. A federal investigation conducted after the shooting found that only one shot was fired by the Panthers. “This was a shoot in, not a shoot out,” one party member described in the documentary. Meanwhile, William O’Neal, an FBI informant, reportedly received a monetary bonus.
23. The LAPD opened fire against the Black Panthers, which led to a massive shootout.
Just four days following Hampton’s death in Chicago, police in Los Angeles raided the city’s Black Panther office. This happened during a time when the racial climate in the country had severely intensified and police established themselves as the dominate force. On December 8, 1969, 300 SWAT members initiated a military-style attack against the Black Panthers. Refusing to back down, Panthers fired back, leading to a massive showdown that lasted for five hours, with 5,000 rounds of ammunition and 3 people from both sides wounded. All Black Panther survivors were taken into custody. To this day, and despite the violence, many Black Panthers consider that moment a victory, including Wayne Pharr, who gives a detailed and riveting account in the documentary, and his recent book, of what exactly went down that day. “After that all the main players were in jail,” Pharr said. “Locked up.”
24. Huey Newton was released from prison and he subsequently renewed the focus to the movement.
Nearly eight months after the violent takedown in L.A., crowds began to gather in Oakland demanding Newton’s acquittal and release from prison. On August 5, 1970, Newton was a free man and his prison release was celebrated by people everywhere. Newton returned to the movement and renewed its focus to survival programs like the Free Breakfast For Children program. However, this sparked some criticism from some members who bemoaned the move. “People didn’t see it as a vehicle for social service,” former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver said in the documentary. “They saw it as a platform for radical political change.”
25. The Black Panther Party split due to infiltration.
With Newton recently released from jail, Bobby Seale incarcerated and Eldrige still abroad in Algeria, the movement’s leadership dwindled. Some Black Panthers chose a leader to follow while others just walked away. We believe the divide was Hoover’s doing, as noted by historian Beverly Cage: “This is part of what the COINTELPRO operations were all about.”
26. The Black Panthers advocated for Bobby Seale’s mayoral campaign in Oakland.
In 1972, Newton shut down Black Panther chapters across the country and centralized the movement in Oakland. “The numbers were dwindling and the force of the party was dwindling so it only made sense to consolidate and see what we could do with what we have,” former Black Panther Elaine Brown said in the film. That same year, party member Bobby Seale was released from prison and later he ran for mayor of Oakland. Applying their political power at the polls was a new approach for the movement and enthusiasm grew quickly. Seale ran a strong campaign, which ultimately helped to register nearly 50,000 black voters in the city. Although he didn’t win, the movement considered it a success in some ways.
27. The movement slowly began to disintegrate, but the legacies of those involved in the revolution are long-lasting.
Following Seale’s loss, many said there was an empty void in the movement that eventually led to the closing of several national chapters. Around this time, prominent, original members withdrew from the party and Newton was noted to express erratic behavior. Newton died in 1989, at the age of 47, after being shot to death in Oakland. Eldrige, who lived until the age of 62, died in 1998 although his family never officially revealed his cause of death. Seale, now 79, is among one of the many living Black Panthers who still speaks out about some of the same issues and carries on the party’s pioneering legacy.
“POWER TO THE PEOPLE!”